Five-Acre Almanac: Dreaming Green

Week 25

Earlier this week a young male moose was hanging out on the library grounds. For most of the day on Wednesday he was just outside our office windows in the small yard between the building and the parking lot. Completely unperturbed by cars driving past or people walking to and from the front doors of the library, he moved from one tree to the next, scraping bark off with his teeth and munching whatever branches he could reach. Between bouts of eating he’d rest for a while in the snow.

Because it got cold fast this winter and deep snow came early, it’s been a rough season for moose. The next couple of months could be especially hard on them. We’ve seen hungry moose before. Several years ago toward the end of a deep snow winter a female moose was lying down in the road not far from our mailboxes and it didn’t have the energy to get back up. We had to drive far to one side of the road for a few days to get around her, and even though we’re not supposed to feed moose, someone cut up a cabbage and set it down in front of her . The cabbage went untouched and then one day the moose was gone, probably after a phone call to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Just inside a window near the entrance of the library there is table that’s home to the Homer Seed Library. On the table is an old card catalog shelving unit that’s now being used to hold seed packets that are free for the taking, and in the spirit of gardening and growing things there are a few houseplants on the table too. Our young moose friend could see the plants and occasionally he’d wander over and push his nose against the window. Poor guy.

I’m beginning to crave green myself these days and starting to look forward to those early garden treats like spinach and miner’s lettuce and the even more abundant wild foods that so graciously grow without any effort on our part. The nettles pop up each spring and while I used to just enjoy them when they were fresh, now I treat them the way we treat salmon in Alaska. There is a window of time in which to harvest them and the hope is to get enough to last us through the winter. For a few weeks while the stinging nettle are young and tender we pick them daily and put them on the drying racks in our yurt, then we jar them up and put them on the pantry shelf. All winter we sprinkle the dried leaves into soups and stir fries and sauces. They’ve grown here for years but it was a while before it occurred to us to save them. It’s funny how sometimes a resource is right in front of you before you recognize its value.

It started with nettle, but then it was other things. Now we collect dandelion, spruce tips, fiddlehead ferns, pineapple weed, yarrow, red clover, plantain, dock, elder flowers, raspberry leaves, roses, rose hips, and fireweed. These are the wild things that grow outside our front door. If we venture a bit further there are lingonberries and blueberries, Labrador tea, mushrooms, and devil’s club. Every year I discover something new to add to the list, something that isn’t actually new at all.

People have lived here for thousands of years and they knew how to get through the long winters with what the earth provided. In that way getting to know the wild plants here has been humbling, because for most everything that our bodies need there is a plant to fit the bill. It’s changed the way I walk through the woods. It’s changed the way I eat. It’s changed the way I think about belonging.

Besides craving green from a gastronomical perspective, I’m craving green the color. The other night I fell asleep to wind and rising temperatures. I dreamed that all the snow melted to reveal a summer landscape, as though summer was just hanging out under the snow all this time. I wonder if moose dream such dreams.

I brought a book home from the library book sale a few years ago called The Book of Chakras by Ambika Wauters. Each of the chakra or energy centers in the body is associated with a color. Being new to the concept of chakras I assumed that the Heart Chakra would be associated with the color red because of the heart’s role in moving blood throughout our bodies, but according to Wauters it’s the energy center that governs “our physical supply of energy and vitality as well as the love that nourishes our spiritual existence.” Taking this into consideration, it makes perfect sense that the Heart Chakra is associated with the color green.

Aside from the spruce trees there’s not much green outside right now. The ground is snow covered and today the ocean and sky are every shade of gray. But over coffee this morning we made our seed order. We’ve got seeds soaking on the kitchen counter for sprouting and each day is longer than the day before.

I’m not sure if hope has a color, but if it does it must be green. And I think it must taste a little like nettle tea which to me tastes earthy and nourishing. It sounds like whatever music it is that wakes up that part of you that goes numb sometimes when the world seems bleak. For me that almost always includes a banjo. Like the plants that grow all around, those things that give hope are worth identifying. They’re worth thinking about and collecting. They’re worth storing up for when winter gets long.

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Five-Acre Almanac: The Speed of Sound

Week 24

In the early morning hours two days ago, we woke to our dog barking. She does this when there’s a moose in the yard or when snow is falling off the roof, but on that night neither of those things happened. The rumble that woke her continued for at least half an hour and we couldn’t identify its source.

Sometimes the military performs drills over Kachemak Bay but when I looked out the window there weren’t any helicopters or lights to indicate that’s what was going on. There were no gusts of wind. It didn’t seem like fireworks. I’d read about the volcano in Tonga just before going to bed and it crossed my mind that it could be related, but I discounted that idea, not trusting that such a thing could be possible.

I learned the next morning that some kind of pressure or sound waves from the Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai volcano located 5800 miles away are what we heard. They traveled up the Pacific and got here in the early morning hours to startle us out of our slumber. They moved through here and kept going north and a little while later they were heard in Fairbanks. And who knows, maybe they’re still moving.

There was a time when the news of the world didn’t travel faster than the speed of sound. Not too far in the distant past those rumbles in the night would have remained a mystery. But now we can watch a volcanic eruption online, in real time, nearly 6000 miles away, and when the sound of it reaches us several hours later we can connect the dots between the two events.

Anyhow, it was something new and a reminder that Earth is one place.

Today I worked on an essay I started last year about stinging nettle. It’s actually about a lot more than nettle and I put the piece aside for a year because writing a good essay is difficult. It requires a kind of attention I am seldom able to give. It requires putting to words things I don’t yet know how to say.

When I started writing my nettle essay last year I was drinking a cup of nettle tea every afternoon, but I got out of the habit. I set the essay aside. When I pulled the essay out of the folder and reread it, I instantly craved the tea.

I started drinking the tea because I’d read that it’s a healthy thing to do, but I continued drinking it because I felt that if I wanted to write about a plant then I needed to know it. Maybe I’m asking too much from a plant or maybe I’m not. Maybe I’m learning how to listen differently.

Sunset on Snow (photo by Dean Sundmark)

The other night I wish I would have listened to the rumbles differently. Now that I know what they were I wish I would have gone out into the moonlit night and given them my full attention. Maybe if I’d done so I would have entertained the idea that what I was hearing had traveled here from the volcano I’d seen on the news the night before rather than casting it aside. At the very least I’d have better descriptions of what it sounded like.

The sound itself wasn’t especially newsworthy. It was like a moose walking across the yard, or snow falling off the roof. If there hadn’t been chatter about it the next morning I might not have given it much thought. But lots of other people heard it too and it didn’t take long for word to spread that what we heard was from a volcano on the other side of the Pacific.

What might be more newsworthy than the sound we heard is the fact that we all believed the same story. We shared an experience and from what I observed there was no arguing or disgruntled banter about it. No blame or conspiracy. We all accepted that the sound we heard originated from the Tonga volcano and that it traveled through space and time to reach us in Homer, Alaska.

Having a couple of facts we could all agree on felt nice. I’d like to see us trend more in that direction.

Five-Acre Almanac: The Rooster Years

Week 15:

Yesterday our rooster died. It happened sometime between when I brought the chickens some water around 11:00am and when I went back around 4:30 to shut them in for the night. I found him on the floor of the coop, close to the feeder, perfectly still, still warm. He lived through six Alaskan winters and didn’t have it in him to make it through another one.

In all the years we’ve kept chickens he was our only rooster. I never gave him a name and each summer around the solstice when he’d start crowing at 4:00am I’d grow weary of his voice piercing through the quiet every fifteen minutes like a persistent snooze alarm, but still I grew attached. He was beautiful to look at and the seriousness with which he took himself amused me to no end. While I don’t have any hard evidence, I think the flock was healthier with him around. He was protective and unafraid to speak his mind if the feeder ran out of food or if he spotted an intruder. His last valiant effort was in early October. I heard him sounding the alarm from a thicket of spindly spruce and when I went out to see what the ruckus was all about I found a Northern goshawk perched in the chicken pen. From his safe space the rooster sent out a warning cry that sent all the hens running for cover. With a little coaxing from Dean and I, the hawk moved on and in time the chickens found their way back to to coop. That was the end of the chickens’ free ranging for the year, and as it turns out, the rooster’s last foray out into the wild.

The year we got the rooster, which was an accident, was the same year we planted a garden in our front yard. Dean used a pile of pallets and made six 4’x4’ raised beds within feet of our front door. Although we’d gardened off and on before that, moving the garden to a location that demanded our attention was a game changer. The next year he added another three 2’x4’ beds even closer to the house. We made a temporary fish-net fence around the front yard garden to keep the chickens and the moose out, but as these things go, the temporary fence is still in place.

A couple years after the front yard garden went in, Dean built a small greenhouse off the back of our chicken coop. He used old windows and a used sauna door that our friend Robert found at the dump. In addition to creating a space for us to grow warmer weather crops, it made it so the chicken coop warms up by a few degrees on a sunny day, and it blocks the south wind that used to seep through the cracks.

The summer after the greenhouse was built, we cut a trail through the lower portion of our property. Starting from the chicken coop/greenhouse, the trail cuts downhill through a thicket of wild roses and ferns to a small spruce forest. When we first moved in, three old spruce trees dominated the area, but within two years the spruce bark beetles came through and killed them. They stood tall and dead for several years, but one by one wind storms knocked them over. Dean and our brother-in-law Joel milled one of the original old trees into lumber that we’ve used for various projects around here. The other two are slowly rotting back into the earth. Now the spruce that were young enough to survive the beetles have grown tall.

After the forested area, the trail comes out into a meadow and turns west. Those first few years after the trail was built we found morel mushrooms in the springtime in that transition zone where the forest turns into the meadow, usually on the south side of a particular small spruce tree. We haven’t been so lucky the last few times we’ve looked but like our old dog Porter who once caught a mouse and for the remainder of his days looked in the same spot every time he passed by in hopes of it happening again, we’ll probably continue to look for morels under that same tree every spring for as long as we’re able to walk the trail.

Where we once found a morel

The trail turns north toward the house again after a hundred or so yards of walking west through the meadow. It winds up through a thicket of wild elderberries that once entered feels otherworldly and is completely private. It’s protected from wind and it’s a space that could be inhabited by fairies, black bears and moose. In the years since we’ve cut a trail through, wild raspberries have moved into the edges to take advantage of the light, and as you move up the hill the stinging nettle becomes more prominent. We spend hours picking nettle along the trail in the early part of summer, and we dry it and store it in glass jars on our pantry shelves to use through the winter months.

One of many elderberry trees

Yesterday after I found the rooster lying dead on the floor of the chicken coop I came in the house and made myself a cup of nettle tea. It’s considered a tonic herb, which according to a study out of the Institute of Integrative and Complimentary Medicine in Zurich, Switzerland means that it has the ability to promote the physiological functioning of an organ system, leading to the subjective feeling of well-being of the patient treated with it.

I sat and treated myself to the hot, earthy, chlorophyll-rich tonic and thought about the rooster’s years with us. I stoked the fire and looked out at the moon, half illuminated and reflecting off the bay. I thought about the hens out there in the coop, wondering which one will claim the highest perch now that the rooster is gone. He was noisy and had a big presence and I imagine it will take a few days for them to sort out their new pecking order. It will take some time to get used to all the newfound space and quiet now that he’s gone.

Old guy